Have you ever tried to get rid of half of what you own? Seems like a scary idea, but that’s the concept of the BBC show ‘Sort Your Life Out’. Presenter Stacey Solomon and her team of DIY and organisational experts come to your house and do their best to help you declutter, clean up, create better systems and get rid of half of your stuff. What if that was applied to the country? That’s exactly what we’ve asked the government to commit to, to reduce the nation’s resource use by 50 per cent by 2050.
I have to confess, I’m addicted to this show. It’s part DIY, part therapy. The presenters don’t judge the people they help for having so much, but they do take them on an emotional journey to falling back in love with their home, rethinking their priorities and falling out of love with all the things they really don’t need. I say the word ‘love’ because one of the things this show highlights is how emotional our connection to objects can be.
Parents can’t let go of toys their children no longer play with, people hang onto DVD collections they never watch but which represent part of their identity, and so many are attached to unworn clothes because they remind them of a special occasion.
On the flipside, people also discover piles of tools they never took out of the box, make-up they’ve never used, shoes never worn and kitchenware they didn’t know they had.
Having more stuff doesn’t necessarily make us happy
When you take a step back and look at all the contents of a home laid out on a warehouse floor, as the show does, it demonstrates something disturbing about our culture. Repeatedly, the programme’s participants reveal why they bought so much: partly to make themselves feel good, partly to show others how they feel (for instance all the hoarded gifts never used). These are socialised habits to think that more is good and to attach emotions to items.
But there’s lots of evidence that more and more isn’t actually doing us any good. It doesn’t do our mental health any good or enhance the spaces we live in and it is certainly not good for the planet. Buying lots of things actually reduces our well-being and living in cluttered spaces increases stress and depression.
We have reported public polling showing that nearly 90 per cent of people want a more resource efficient society and 60 per cent would back policies to achieve it. And, echoing the enthusiasm of people keen to appear on Stacey Solomon’s show, they want it even if it substantially changes the way they live.
When people on ‘Sort Your Life Out’ finally get rid of half of their stuff and see the impact on their houses, there are always tears. Not of sadness, but of relief. A burden is lifted and they are more able to enjoy spending time in their homes and prioritising time with family and friends, as well as being finally able to relax on the sofa without piles of stuff falling on their heads.
Unseen environmental impacts are huge
Everything we buy is made of mined or grown materials. The piles of waste we see as consumers are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are so many other resources used to make the products we own. For example, 6.5kg of ore has to be mined to extract the 75g of metals in a typical smartphone. This is doing extensive damage to ecosystems, generates greenhouse gases and pollutes our water and air. The UN estimates that, worldwide, 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress and half of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the extraction and processing of materials, food and fuels.
Our recent analysis shows that this wide range of impacts means none of the materials we use to build our houses can be classed as ‘green’. So the best way to protect the environment is to only use what we really need and reduce the overall amount of virgin materials we consume to what is essential.
Could the UK cut its resource use in half?
The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) dedicates a whole chapter to tackling consumption. It estimates that 40 to 70 per cent of global emissions could be reduced by changing the way we consume products. With such significant results possible, this must be a top priority for holding back climate change, as well for reversing harm to nature. To be in line with sustainable levels set out by the UN, the UK would need to halve its resource consumption by 2050.
Is that possible? With a clear vision and a target driving change, supported by sector specific plans and goals, a more efficient circular economy is completely within reach. Other countries are already doing it. The Netherlands has committed to a fully circular economy by 2050. Even here in the UK, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have raised the bar on ambition above national action.
Unfortunately, the UK government has so far been reluctant to commit. Last year it failed to include a target on resource use under its Environment Act, which is unfathomable considering the enormous nature and climate wins it could bring.
It’s clear people don’t want cluttered lives. Another hugely popular show, ‘The Repair Shop’, shows how much we also want to keep, reuse and repair the things we really love. The government could do much more to support people in these desires. For a start, it could extend the right to repair and demand better product design, so valuable things can be more easily kept in use and recycled. The deposit return scheme, which the government has committed to, but which is now hitting choppy political waters, is a policy which reflects a very important principle related to all of this: that we shouldn’t just let valuable materials go to waste. As ‘Sort Your Life Out’ shows, the first step is committing to halving the amount of stuff in your home. The real liberation and a better future comes from paring it all down to what we really love and need. Maybe Stacey could have a word?